Weekly retrospective 04-05-2014

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“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.

Another delayed post, this time due to having visitors. It’s been great to have been exploring St. Petersburg for a few days, and getting to see some areas and sights that were new to me. It’s been a week in which I learned a lot of things that astonished me, some of which inspire me, and others which appall me.

The quote above is from Hippocrates, and both food and medicine have been on my mind this week. I’ve been astonished to learn that corporate power in these sectors is so strong that in the US they have actually succeeded in abolishing government control of their activities, in some aspects at least. It’s just unbelievable. And, given the court ruling I mentioned the other week, which has effectively removed any controls over donations to politicians, it’s only a matter of time before this autonomy is extended and consolidated.

Russia is taking a very strong stance against Genetically Modified food – a welcome stance, in my view. Currently, no genetically-modified foods are grown in Russia; imports from other countries are also banned. the government is taking a very strong stance in opposing GM foods and, as you can see from the photographs, some companies at least are making a marketing point of being GM-free.

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A lot of Western critics of Russian policy make a big deal of the background of Vladimir Putin and many of his key team in the KGB and military intelligence. I’m certainly not saying that the KGB were nice people, though in these times of rendition, NSA mass surveillance, and remote assassination by drone, it might be wise for the West not to try for the moral high ground. Still, the fact is that Putin and his team were professionally engaged in identifying and countering threats to national security; that’s an honourable trade, and one that they have not forgotten.

That being the case, it’s unlikely that they wouldn’t see the threat to national security posed by GMOs. Once these patented seeds start to be used, the US-based agro-industrial complex owns the food supply. Cross-contamination of crops is already being used in Canada to stop farmers from saving their seed to plant the next year’s crops; instead they’ll have to buy fresh supplies from the corporations. In the EU, plans to require the registration of “plant reproductive material” by suppliers is going to be very expensive for suppliers of heirloom seeds; it’s difficult not to suspect that this will play into the hands of Big Agriculture and lead to the wider dominance of sterile GM seeds.

So, even without discussing the general lack of understanding of any long-term health effects caused by eating GM foods, or the fact that unanticipated genetic transfer from GM crops has already led to the appearance of herbicide-resistant weeds, it’s obvious that allowing Russia’s food supply to be dominated by patented, sterile seeds controlled by US corporations is an absolute non-starter for any Russian government that cares about preserving economic sovereignty. The Russians will no doubt have taken note of the fact that the US agro-industrial companies successfully got the US government to pass a law which actually removed the ability of the US government to influence the planting or sale of GM productseven if they should be found to cause health problems. I find that sentence so incredible that I can’t believe it even as I type it. (This is in a context where regulation is already so weak that carcinogens banned in other countries are still widely found in foods in the US).

That law was eventually removed by its opponents in the US Senate. However, given the recent law removing limits on campaign funding by corporations, I have no doubt that it will be reinstated soon. The US food supply will then effectively be run by sovereign corporations, immune from government oversight. It’s astonishing.

However, if so, they’ll join Big Pharma in being above the law. An article questioning the effectiveness of Gardasil, the vaccine against HPV (the virus suspected of causing cervical cancer) – in fact, suggesting that it may become “the greatest medical scandal of all time” – contained the following bombshell:

U.S. law prevents anyone from suing Merck or any other vaccine manufacturer as the U.S. Congress gave them total immunity from civil lawsuits in 1986, and that legal protection which gives them a free pass to put as many vaccines into the market as they want to, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.

They can’t be sued. At all. Wow. Just… wow. I wonder in which other areas corporate interests have a free hand in the US?

Still, as I mentioned in a previous post, the power of corporate interests is now very clearly driving US policy. It’s clear in US policy over the Ukraine, and it’s the basis for the secret negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Partnership, which would entrench the interests of the corporations in international law, over-riding the policies of sovereign states. This is very dangerous.

The problem of corporate power in medicine isn’t restricted to the US, by any means. For a different perspective coming out of the UK, read Big Pharma, my cancer patient and me. I studied this kind of behaviour during my MBA; the ethical murkiness of it all was one of the things I learned that turned me off a corporate career.

Also very worrying: the era of antibiotics is almost over: almost every country in the world is now reporting that bacterial infections no longer respond to treatment with antibiotics. There’s a useful explanation of the problem in maps here.

Returning briefly to food, the Guardian had an article on how organized crime is compromising international food supply chains. They refer to the adulteration of milk powder with melamine in China a few years ago; I’ve used this case with my students in both Beijing and Swansea to illustrate the complexities and dangers of international business. Now it seems that the recent adulteration of beef products with horsemeat in Europe may only be the tip of the iceberg: we can’t know any longer what it really is that we’re eating.

As the showdown over Ukraine continues, we can now see it in a light rather different to the line coming out of Western media corporations: as a struggle between multinationals seeking to extend their grip over new territories, versus states like Russia seeking to maintain sovereignty. The effect of all this is to drive Russia and China closer together, which won’t help the West in the longer term; even traditional conservative voices (as opposed to the corporate-controlled ‘neo-conservatives’) in the US are now pointing out that current policy is dangerous and counter-productive.

Bearing that in mind, I see that pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine are sitting on top of a salt mine containing over a million weapons. Let’s hope that those stay where they are, and don’t all into the hands of organized crime.

One of the big issues behind the scenes in all of this is national decline in both the US and Russia. Russia collapsed economically in the 1990s, and went through a huge national trauma and loss of global influence. A major part of current Russian policy is the restoration of a competent state structure, and the restoration of national influence and pride. Russia has not forgotten that the West played a big role in causing its past problems. One lasting outcome of that was a precipitous population decline. Russia is now tackling that head-on by making it much easier for native speakers of Russian in other countries to acquire Russian citizenship. Given the strength and affluence of Russia compared to other countries in the post-Soviet space, that’s going to be attractive to a lot of people. The immediate focus of the policy is, of course, Ukraine, but it’s an issue with consequences for other countries from Armenia to Kyrgyzstan.

National decline is an issue in the US as well, although it’s not reaching the headlines yet. It’s driven by rising oil prices, amongst other things. Gregor MacDonald reminds us that no-one is finding any new oil. Continued global demand with no new supply means prices go up and up – and the inevitable consequence of that is growing poverty. For an account of what that looks like in contemporary America, read An Empire in Decline, City by City, Town by Town by former State Department whistleblower Peter van Buren.

In China, meanwhile, the government plans a huge shake-up of the inefficient and debt-laden State-Owned Enterprises; the rest of the world will have to wait and see how effective it will be in improving the country’s slowing economy.

Revisiting health matters, the coronavirus MERS is a growing problem: killing more people in Saudi Arabia, and now spreading to the UK and the US. Is this a global health threat in the making?

Finally, the week brought a couple of fascinating scientific insights into what makes us human.

A number of sources reported on the discovery that memories and phobias can be inherited via changes in RNA.

Another headline speaks for itself: Scientists Claim That Quantum Theory Proves Consciousness Moves To Another Universe At Death. Mind-blowing – like so many other things that I learned this week.

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